Richard Gishler: Edmonton theatre has lost part of its story and its heart

Richard Gishler as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Northern Light Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls,

A hard year in theatre got harder still in December. With the passing this month of actor/ playwright Richard Gishler, at 74, this theatre town has lost some of its lustre: part of its origin story, its history, its improbable narrative drive … and its heart.

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As a genre-busting stage career attests, Gish (as he was affectionately known by everyone who passed through a stage door), was a veritable Edmonton theatre history himself, a symbol of continuity through the decades. And, by personality, he was a community-builder off the stage too. The social media tributes from across the country speak to the Gishler ripple effect. Actors and directors found him professional and passionate in his work — and funny, generous and unpretentious in bonding casts and companies.

The Gishler resumé, which includes training at the U of A, touches down on every stage, large and small, in town. It’s a repository of Edmonton theatre cred that goes back to the early days of Walterdale, Theatre 3 in the ‘70s, and its ‘80s heir Phoenix Theatre. A wonderful farceur, he was onstage frequently in the comedies and door-slammers that were a staple feature of programming when Howard Peckett launched Stage West in Edmonton in 1974, and later at its successor, the Mayfield Dinner Theatre.

The versatile Gishler did shows in the defunct Salvation Army citadel that was the earliest incarnation of the Citadel Theatre. Among his other roles there, he was “Lightfoot” McTague in John Neville’s Sherlock in 1975. He was the Prince in the starry Neville production of Romeo and Juliet that opened the Citadel’s glass-and-brick playhouse downtown in 1976.

Fellow actor Patricia Casey, now Toronto-based — their close friendship goes back 45 years — was Lady Montague in that production. She remembers the fun of the rehearsals. The whole company returned to rehearsal after lunch wearing team T-shirts, Montague and Capulet. And as the Prince, Gish wore a striped umpire shirt, as the play’s arbiter between the feuding clans.

Says Casey, “we did four shows together, including a two-hander! (Michel Tremblay’s Damnée Manon sacrée Sandra), without ever speaking to each other onstage.” She remembers that when they finally got to play a husband and wife (in Marianne Copithorne’s production of The Twilight of the Golds some 15 years ago) “we joked that we wouldn’t be able to do it!”

Gishler was in Northern Light Theatre shows when NLT was a Shakespeare company doing shows on the river valley hill that’s home to the Edmonton Folk Fest these days. Casey remembers him as a wonderful Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So does Glenn Nelson, who used to drive down from his home town Grande Prairie to see theatre here before he moved to Edmonton in 1980.

Actor/ playwright/ composer/ gay activist Darrin Hagen remembers that the Workshop West production of Michel Tremblay’s landmark Hosanna, starring Gishler and Jack Ackroyd, was one of the first plays he saw when he moved to Edmonton in 1983 from Rocky Mountain House. And it changed his life. In “a role I wrote specifically with him in mind,” a recent Zoom workshop reading of Hagen’s 10 Funerals for Shadow Theatre was one of Gishler’s last gigs.

Nelson saw him perform long before he was ever onstage with him. “Richard was one of those actors where I went ‘Oh my gawd, that’s what acting is.…” Among other shows Nelson remembers Alice in Wonderland at Theatre 3, and As Is, the influential ‘80s AIDS play, at Phoenix. “Just stunning, the work he would do…. He inhabited everything he did; he dove in with both feet.”

Richard Gishler

“He worked all the time in his prime, and across Canada,” says Nelson of his longtime friend. And in all kinds of plays. “In comedies he was simply hilarious…. But he looked at everything with the same approach: ‘I’ll do it to the best of my ability’. There was a practicality to him.”

“To him, theatre was a job, and also something you revered. He was hyper-professional that way. The one thing he didn’t have patience for was anyone in the biz who just phoned it in. He never liked confrontation, but it made him crazy. He was ‘we’re all really lucky to have a job, so….’”

Actor/director Patricia Darbasie, who directed Gishler in a 2010 Fringe production of The Domino Heart, echoes the thought when she calls Gishler “the consummate professional.” She remembers him being very upset about missing three words one performance.“Oh Richard, the story continues without those three words,” she remembers telling him. trying to console him. He “was “very hard on himself.”

Gishler grew up in the Garneau ‘hood (that’s the local skating rink featured in Kenneth Brown’s hit Life After Hockey, in which Gishler gets a mention as “little Dickie Gishler”). And “he was in the theatre business right from the beginning; it was all he ever wanted to do,” says Nelson. Judy Unwin remembers that at age nine and seven (respectively) she and Gish took city of Edmonton theatre classes (ah, those were the days) on Saturday mornings: one hour of drama, one hour of movement, one hour of speech.

Early chapters of the Gishler story include the Playground Players, a local touring troupe for kids, along with (costume designer) Pat Burden and (filmmaker) Anne Wheeler. “He kept the marionettes, beautiful harlequins his mom and dad brought him from Europe,” says Nelson. “And Richard made plays for them, to perform for kids at the Valley Zoo; they had a regular kiosk there.”

There’s a long string of comedies and farces in the Gishler resumé, many of them at Stage West. That was the site of the first show he and Nelson did together, All For Mary. “Dreadful,” laughs Nelson. “Kind of a farce, more of a light Brit comedy. Light on on the comedy, light on everything….” But Gishler applied himself with his usual professional vigour.

Nelson tells a story on himself about entirely missing a cue one night. In the gap between his character’s entrances, he occupied himself backstage playing chess with the assistant stage manager.” The cast was gracious in accepting his apologies, Nelson reports. The usually affable Gishler “turned into a block of ice; he didn’t want to hear my excuses.”

I first saw Gishler in productions like the female Odd Couple (as half a pair of outrageous Spanish suitors) and Ray Cooney farces like It Runs In The Family. “He had natural timing,” as Nelson says. “He didn’t have to force anything. The man could tear a house down with a look…. Your game was up when you were onstage with him!”

And offstage, too, Gishler was a natural orchestrator of theatre camaraderie. In the early days of Stage West (and for that matter, thereafter) Edmonton later Sunday night after the last show of the week was pretty dead. Where could actors go to kick back and have a drink together? Gishler hosted the cast in his dressing room in a kind of salon. At Lurid Acres, as he called it, there was “tasteful lighting” (he changed the lightbulbs, a particular obsession of his) and actors and crew showed up “to laugh and point,” as he phrased it.

Speaking of laughing and pointing, when Gishler bought a condo, Casey had a brass plaque engraved with  Lurid Acres for his door. His neighbours assumed he was Mr. Acres.

When he was recovering from throat cancer nine years ago, Gishler, a stoic about his enforced diet of soup and smoothies, turned playwright. He tapped that wealth of experience at Stage West working in shows with impossibly demanding (and often spectacularly miscast) celebrity TV stars for a “very funny sort of horror thriller comedy” as Darbasie describes it. The script, set at The Starlight Dinner Theatre, awaits production. And he continued to work on another play, with a World War II spy backstory.

“One of the many wonderful things about Richard was that he was worldly,” says Darbasie of a 30 year-plus friendship that involved a lot of theatre-going. “So many actors just talk about theatre. Richard read newspapers cover to cover, and we’d have great discussions … about everything!”

Actor/stage manager Elizabeth Allison-Jorde, whose mother is Stage West and Mayfield costume designer Pat Burden, grew up appreciating the Gishler sense of inclusiveness.  Later, at a cast barbeque, she noted to her husband actor Kyle Jorde that the cut of steak was chuck blade. “To which Richard said, totally deadpan and without missing a beat, said ‘that’s my porn name’.” It stuck, a running joke between the three of them.

Theatre people describe a man with a gift for friendship — who often showed up with lightbulbs and paint chips — through all vicissitudes. During Darbasie’s recovery from knee surgery five years ago, for example, Gishler would take two buses and a taxi to bring her soup, and they’d drink tea and watch movies.

The return of his illness recently was a shock, after so many years of remission. When Hagen heard the news he immediately composed a requiem. Here it is: requiem 2021.

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